FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

30 April 2014

Liberia's Integrity Dilemma - Anti-Corruption Obstacles Under EJS's Nose

For months now compliance inspectors from the Public Procurement Concessions Commission have been struggling to gain access to records at the National Port Authority in hopes of performing review and monitoring activities in line with the PCCC Act 2010.

Section 5 (a) of the PPC Act mandates the Commission to monitor compliance with the Act by all parties and persons to whom it applies. Consistent with this mandate, the Commission undertook the following monitoring exercises:

At the Liberia National Police Training Academy, Adelaide Gardner, a member of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's Kitchen Cabinet, used her unofficial capacity to bulldoze her way through a catering contract, using the President's name and, according to LNP sources, intimidating commandants at the academy into withdrawing a qualified bid winner and declaring Gardner the winner.

Gardner, according to information and documents in possession of FrontPageAfrica, succeeded in being awarded the contract for the provision of catering services to the NPTA for about three consecutive years, prior to the current fiscal period.

Highly-placed sources tell FrontPageAfrica that the NPTA was set to award the catering contract to Rose M. Wang (Garden Restaurant), recorded to be the only bidder with healthy values and who, sources say, quoted a price lower than that of Ms. Gardner. FrontPageAfrica has also learned that some commandants had reservations about giving the catering contract to Gardner especially after the PPCC had been notified that Rose M. Wang (Garden Restaurant) had won the bid.

Gardner Threatened Dismissal, Got, Source Says

In addition to prying the contract away from Wang, Gardner, according to LNP sources, fulfilled her threats to a commanding officer at the academy who was against the decision to award her the contract that she would make sure that they lost their jobs. Gardner had the last laugh, and the last say, sources say. Commandant AlphonsoSamukai was replaced in March by William K. Mulbah.

Some government insiders believe the public embarrassment brought on Sirleaf by someone so close to her could have been avoided had those behind Gardner not been so persistent in pressing her along to secure the contract in alleged contravention of the procurement regulations. Those efforts came close to succeeding on January 14, this year when Gardner and some higher-ups in the Police prevailed on Sirleaf to pay a visit to the PPCC office. At the time, Director Peggy Varfley Meres was reportedly out of the country and Gardner and others were hoping to use her absence to sign off on the deal, which they did.

The Executive Mansion would later report on its website that Sirleaf, during that visit to the PPCC in January to discuss difficulties faced by public entities in implementing projects in "this critical Dry Season period," did not see the Chairman of the Board, the Executive Director nor any of the Commissioners.

During her visit to the PPCC, the President, according to the Executive Mansion, requested the Commissioners to be more mindful of their duties by working more frequently with staff rather than only on a quarterly basis. The President called upon them to be mindful that project implementation is highest in the Dry Season, and to cooperate with all public entities rather than be obstacles.

The President also noted that recognizing that entities had the responsibility in submitting their Cash and Procurement Plans and meeting other provisions of the Public Procurement Law, pointed out that she expects the PPCC to provide full assistance to entities that do not fully understand the laws or have limited capacity.

Then came the shocker: "The President closed the meeting by warning that if anyone duly obstructs the implementation of the administration's development projects during this critical period, they will be removed from their position," the Executive Mansion quoted the president as saying.

Interfering with Integrity Bodies

What followed after the president's departure was a 4-G signing of the controversial Adelaide Gardner catering deal now in the spotlight. Many observers say the fact that the president went to the PPCC, on the urging of Gardner, created an aura of fear among top academy brass and opened a floodgate for other non-compliance institutions now are using her visit as a crutch to get approvals and circumvent the process. "It makes it hard for integrity institutions to do their jobs when everyone is running to the president to complain about the process." Said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity this week.

Many cite the Gardner example as a clear case where someone with access to the president used that influence to change the outcome and interfere in legitimate government procurement matters. It is a concern some heralded when James Verdier, the new chair of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) hit home when he vowed to resign his post, if Sirleaf or any senior officials of government interferes with the functions of the Commission as a way of impeding the execution of his responsibilities.

While Verdier has proclaimed that asset recovery would be a key focus when investigating alleged acts of corruption, many see his declaration as herculean task and almost impossible to accomplish due to what many Liberians and international partners believe is the lack of political will on the part of the Sirleaf-led government

Verdier's predecessor, Frances Johnson-Allison hit a brick wall whenever she released a report bringing senior administration officials or close presidential aides to book. The LACC under Allison's watch hooked the NPA Managing Director Matilda Parker and one of her deputies for making false declaration of their assets, with the LACC describing their action an intentional material misrepresentation and unexplained wealth accumulation while serving in government.

The aftermath of the findings drew angry response from the NPA and Parker who publicly ridicule the integrity body. The response drew no reaction from the Executive Mansion validating perceptions held by the political will is lacking in the Sirleaf government.

Allison said at the time, that Parker declared under oath the value of a storey building under construction at US$15,000 which the LACC verification team doubted and a reevaluation was ordered and was funded by Madam Zeon and the same house was revalued at US$51,200. "This is a clear indication of a glaring and intentional misrepresentation of the facts while under oath which is in violation of the laws of Liberia," the LACC Chairman noted.

Commenting on National Port Authority Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, the LACC boss iterated that Miss Matilda Parker embarked on a campaign of misrepresentation from the beginning of the process to the end of the process.

Four Years after the departure of John S. Morlu II, former Auditor General of the Republic of Liberia, integrity institutions like the General Auditing Commission, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and the Public Procurement Concessions Commission have been struggling to make inroads due to interference from higher-ups. Morlu appears to have been the lone ranger that even the President was unable to control, perhaps due to his own strengths and his "in your face attitude", and the vast support he had from international partners including America and the European Union.

This is where the task of implementing integrity becomes murky for integrity institutions powerless to enforce ruling in the absence of political will. FPA contacted the former Auditor General to ask him about some of the new reports of fraud and procurement irregularities.

Gardner Milking 'Patronage System', Morlu Says

Said Morlu: "I do not know the details of the contract at the Police academy. But I do not think the likes of Ms. Gardner are entrepreneurs. These are people who are using the patronage system nurtured by Sirleaf to get money out of the system by any means and at any cost possible. As Auditor General, I documented through letters, investigations and audit reports from the 'so-called close friends of the President' who established businesses only to get specific contract to get money out of the government coffers. It would be nice to know the past performance of Gardner's business and if whether before Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ms. Gardner was ever able to obtain a government contract. I will not be surprised if the Police Academy contract is not her only or single most important contract in Liberia."

Added Morlu: "The truth be told, these people are not risk takers, they are getting free contracts from the government through using their influential positions without any demonstrable track record of past performance."

Morlu further stated: "There are many ways to launder money. One of the ways in Liberia is to have close friends create businesses that can be used to clean ill-gotten wealth. This is why we are telling people in US Government to examine the businesses being created by politically exposed people in Liberia, especially tracking and documenting the flow of money from their businesses into various accounts abroad. In USA, drug dealers launder their money by creating vending machine business or nightclubs where they literally sell things at below market just to create room to clean illegal money."

Integrity Fighters, Don't be Afraid, Morlu Says

Morlu closed : "I do not blame the likes of Gardner. People like me where chased out. By now, I would used the powerful provisions granted in law to launch an immediate forensic investigation just as the Comptroller General does in USA where there is reported fraud in procurement. Go and read US GAO's website and see his many opinions on procurement disputes. Like private auditing firms and a growing list of Auditor's General around the world, we created a 22-member forensic audit team at the GAC who were trained with EU's money. The purpose was for the Forensic team to investigate or follow up on these kinds of newspaper reports, as more than 70% of fraud cases are reported first through the media. But again, people do not want to lose their jobs by taking the fight to the doorsteps of even the President, as I was willing and prepared to do each time. People heading integrity institutions must not be afraid for being fired. They will find work somewhere else."

In Gardner's case, the Kitchen Cabinet official admits using Sirleaf as a vehicle to accomplish her goals and showed no remorse as she boasted how many of her critics are jealous of her going after free government money. "For those of your who sit down all day and plan how not to work and get free money, keep it up, that's why your butts gonna sit down broke and be begging people in the night for money to go do what your go do with it. But some of us here, we do work hard for our little two cents and we enjoy spending it. I enjoy spending my money too. "

Gardner went on to say that she would change nothing if she had the chance to do it all over again.

"I am proud of the job I have done going on for the past four years for the Police. Ask them, they will tell you. I am a very professional woman, I did more than they even asked me to do and I will do it all over again and I will sign any doggone contract I want to sign and do my job. Government pays me, government pays me... If I give a price to the government, government feels say, oooh ... ... that money too much, fine, no problem."

Sirleaf's reluctance to hold her officials feet to the fire is a far cry from her pledge upon election in January 2006 when she said: "We know that if we are to achieve our economic and income distribution goals, we must take on forcibly and effectively the debilitating cancer of corruption. Corruption erodes faith in government because of the mismanagement and misapplication of public resources. It weakens accountability, transparency and justice. Corruption short changes and undermines key decision and policy making processes. It stifles private investments which create jobs and assures support from our partners. Corruption is a national cancer that creates hostility, distrust, and anger."

Added Sirleaf: "In this respect, I will lead by example. I will expect and demand that everyone serving in my Administration leads by example."

In contrast, many of those in Sirleaf government, official or unofficial have undermined Sirleaf's 2006 pronouncements, especially regarding the issue of assets declaration.

UN Chief Cites Integrity Lapses

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon agrees. In his 27th report to the Security Council in March, the UN chief indicated that while some measures have been taken to improve transparency and accountability in Liberia, follow-through on cases of possible corruption remained weak. According to the UN Secretary General in October 2013, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission released its second report on the verification of assets of presidential appointees where of the 77 officials audited, 25 were found to have made truthful declarations, 22 were judged uncooperative and 30 were found to have misrepresented their assets or did not complete the exercise.

Sirleaf promised in 06: :The first testament of how my Administration will tackle public service corruption will be that everyone appointed to high positions of public trust, such as in the Cabinet and heads of public corporations, will be required to declare their assets. I will be the first to comply, and I will call upon the Honorable Speaker and President Pro-Temps to say that they comply. My Administration will also accord high priority to the formulation and passage into law of a National Code of Conduct, to which all public servants will be subjected.

Six years later in 2012, persistent complaints from the LACC led Sirleaf to suspend 45 government officials, including her son, for failing to declare their assets to anti-corruption authorities. Her son, Charles Sirleaf, one of three of the president's sons appointed to government posts, was suspended from his position as Deputy Central Bank Governor. But the international commendation and media attention the move garnered soon fizzled with more problems of key presidential aides and higher-ups reneging on the responsibilities to cooperate with integrity institutions.

Today, integrity institutions viewed as the first wall in the war against corruption are finding it difficult. The once-powerful GAC has been watered down, the LACC is still searching for teeth to implement and the PPCC remains on the fringes of neglect despite some inroads and very little resources to put procurement and concessions mishaps in check. The PPPC I under constant threat from officials under the guise of the president's friends.

Caution from UNDP

The lapses are getting the attention of the international community. Yvonne Wolo, addressing a recent UNDP-funded project, "Strengthen Transparency Accountability Oversight and Participation(STAOP)", in March, warned that unless Liberians turned away from corrupt practices by embracing the procurement reform program, the country will remain underdeveloped. For Morlu, the problem lies in the president's circle of friends. "Has the media ever stop to ask why close friends of the president are all turning businessmen and women overnight? Could it be possible that they serving as conduits for channeling money for well positioned people in government and that the 'new business people' are the biggest loop hole in the asset declaration scheme in Liberia?

The likes of Adelaide Gardner do not work in government so they do not have to declare assets and so can be the perfect vehicle for cleaning ill-gotten wealth. From USA to former Soviet Republics to Liberia, I learned how people clean ill-gotten wealth. So nothing will happen to the likes of Gardner ... they are just tasting the cream at the top, they are not the real deal. You wait for January 16, 2018 and Morlu and others will be back chasing down the monies being taking from Liberians."

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